I have been reading Zen in the Art of Writing ever since reading Vicki Winslow’s awesome post about it. The book is a collection of essays, all by Ray on writing, and I have been working my way slowly through these precious pages. There is one essay called “Run Fast, Stand Still” which has been sitting like dew in my brain cells; and that essay is the inspirational backbone of this post.
As many of you know, I recently moved to Austin, Texas from my little suburban town in Connecticut. Although I have lived many other places in my life, none of them have actually been cities; and rarely have I ever moved somewhere to instantly have an apartment and a job and responsibilities.Usually I just had a backpack and a wide open schedule.
So this move has been different than any other; and as such, it has been teaching me things that other transitions have not.
For instance, for the last three days, me and my partner have spent most of our time in the 2 mile radius around our apartment. We have explored the shopping areas so that we could obtain groceries, and we have explored the Green Belt so that we can get our nature fix and let the dog run. These things are important.
And yet, part of me wonders why we have not yet set foot in the downtown areas that we were so looking forward to. The Alamo Drafthouse, the little coffee shops, the local music-filled bars. Why are we so slow with this process?
Then I thought more about it, after breaking my computer and having plenty of time to think instead of work, and I realized that it makes perfect sense. We need to get familiar with this small area before we can comfortably expand into the rest of the city and see what it has to offer. We have to nurture our roots, our home, our connection to our neighborhood. Then we can explore and know exactly how to find our way back home, and also know what our home actually is.
The reason I wanted to make a post about this realization is that I think it may be the same type of situation for any new area you are moving to- whether it be a physical move or a mental one. If you want to move beyond anxiety or depression, you have to take little steps. You have to have your eye on a goal, in my case, this apartment, and give it the attention it needs so that it becomes familiar. Once you have that in place, you can slowly expand to new territory. But when the heart of your new territory is in and of itself new as well, then you have to put a significant amount of attention on making it feel like ‘home’.
After all, you need to have a safe place to come back to when you are done exploring, right?
If we apply this feeling to mental situations, you can see it in terms of any goal that you want to accomplish. Maybe you are afraid of driving on highways, or perhaps you are anxious when in public. What you can then do is make one situation, for instance, driving on one little highway with a friend who compassionately helps you remain calm and can take over if need be. You can become familiar with that one thing, and then expand outward. Once you are familiar with it, you know that even if you choose not to drive on the seven lane highways in Austin, you can still drive down the little highway by your house in Connecticut. Little baby steps. Nourishing the roots along the way.
This is all basically to say that if you feel angry or frustrated with yourself for not moving fast enough towards your goals, it may make sense to take a step back and look at where you are. Are you trying to expand too quickly, or make a giant shift all at once? Is there any way to reduce the amount of newness so that you can actually accomplish your goal in little pieces, by making a little home in a new area of your psyche and building it up until it becomes familiar?
For me, it seems that this would be the key for any growth that I want to do. There are dozens of big and very specific fears that I have, and I am now thinking that it would make more sense to slowly work with them by making little comfortable areas in the new territories; much like this little apartment in the big city of Austin which I have yet to explore fully.
Right now, the value of “stuff” and the torment it can bring is taking up the bulk of my attention. The thing is, it’s the holiday season. The time you are supposed to buy stuff for other people. The other thing is that I’m packing to move to Austin, Texas from Connecticut.
I’m moving out of the home I grew up in, which has steadily accumulated the things that I have cherished throughout my life. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve left this terribly boring state many times. For the last ten years I have not been living here. However, each time I would get a new fantastic idea of where the wind was telling me to go, I would stop here and drop off everything that I wasn’t taking with me. So now there is a great pile of everything from My Little Ponies to little stones from India to stones I gathered while hitch hiking to letters my dad sent me from prison. All of these things are here, accumulated, and, for the most part, irritating.
On one hand, I love them. I cherish them. I want to keep them forever and ever so that I can remember the glorious moments of my childhood when I was playing. So that I can remember the thrill of catching perfect rides on the 80. So that I can remember sitting in random towns, with random people, feeling like the world was a big and exciting place. There’s even a love poem that some stranger wrote for me in Albuquerque while I was making jewelry at a coffee shop, and for the life of me I cannot throw it out.
On the other hand, I don’t want all this stuff. It takes up space. It takes up time. It causes me to remember the past and prevents me from living in the moment. I can live in the moment while remembering the past, but, well, that’s just not the same now, is it?
So what do you do with this stuff, how do you decide what to get rid of, and how do you decide what to get for people? They are just going to throw it away someday, heartbroken over the trash can, putting it in and taking it out, trying to not feel like they are insulting you by throwing it out. Or at least, that’s how I feel.
All of these gifts that have been bought for me over the years, they amount to guilt right now. The more expensive the gift, the more horrible I feel admitting that I have never used, worn, ate or burned it. If it’s something like a candle, I can do my best to burn it now, but there are only so many candles you can burn at once. And sometimes, you have to move to Austin. And sometimes, there is nowhere to leave all. that. stuff.
Some people suggest taking pictures of the things that we love. This is a great idea. But that quality of touching the things is so critical, at least for me, in truly remembering the times that they invoke. This is a magical process, and one that I am not easily willing to let go of. However, is it worth it? This is my big question. Is it worth it to have the memory? If I was stuck in a convalescent home with nothing left to live for, then yeah, maybe I would love to hold the things from my adventures and remember all the feelings involved. But there is no way that these things are going to make it THAT long. And there is also no way that I can predict whether or not I will end up paralyzed with nothing to do but rummage through my tangible memories. So what do I do?
Throw them away.
It all gets thrown away.
Every wonderful gift you ever made, bought or stolen for someone you love eventually gets thrown away. Maybe you get them something huge for their house that they cannot possibly fit in the trash. In that case, they are going to get sick of it and secretly resent you for making them feel guilty for even considering hiring someone to throw the damn thing away.
This is the problem.
Each year at this time, we are expected to get obscene amounts of gifts. Personally, I make my presents each year. Mostly because I’m consistently rather broke. However, the thought of someone feeling guilty and brokenhearted for throwing away or donating a thing I made for them is not a good feeling. Yet, I still want to give something to each person I love and am geographically close to. How do you win?
I don’t know. All I know is that dealing with stuff that has been accumulating for years is very stressful. So to all the people that have bought me heartfelt gifts over the past 28 years, I say, thank you. I love you. I love you independently of the things you have bought for me, and I hope that throwing them away does nothing to detriment our friendship and the quality of connection that we experience.
I also say that it is a great idea to think of things that add to someone’s life without ever taking up space in it. A gift certificate for a massage or to their favorite restaurant. Some hand-made bath salts. A candle. Some edible undies. It doesn’t matter. Anything that can be used without taking up extra space on this little planet.
Because the only time to live is now. And the only thing that memories offer you is the nourishment of the past. Sometimes, this nourishment is invigorating. Other times, it bogs you down. And there is no way to predict the future, to figure out whether or not this or that specific item is going to eventually nourish you. Sometimes you have to take a chance. Sometimes you have to throw away what you are sure of, and walk into what you are uncertain about.
Your whole life is waiting. The memories will be there, they just might take more effort. And your friends do not need you to go broke spending money on more stuff for them. They are just going to throw it out. Make them something that will break, give them something they can use. Make a good impact on their future by not going out of your way to add heartbreak to it.
And perhaps in this there is a deeper lesson. A lesson about walking away from what you have been holding onto too tightly. A lesson about letting to and feeling free in the present moment as you walk into the unknown. A lesson, even, on spending time with people without relying on your ability to find them gifts as a representation of your true feelings. But personally, I don’t even have time to reflect on it, because I have to figure out which journals to burn and which Pez dispensers deserve a spot in my allotted boxes.